The Collect read in church on July 23
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.
These days, Monday Matters offers reflections on the prayers we say in church on Sunday, the collect of the day. We do this based on the conviction that praying shapes our believing, that what we pray forms us. We do this hoping that the prayers we say on Sunday will carry us through the week.
He came pretty regularly to church, at the outset mostly for the sake of wife and kids. We had any number of conversations about why faith didn’t make sense to him. It might have been generous to call him an agnostic. He was one of the smartest people I’d met in church, a well-read philosophy major. I was no match for the intellectual sparring, but he kept coming to church.
After a while, he made an appointment to tell me that he had come to a place where faith actually did make sense. He seemed to affirm the adage that faith is more often caught than taught. Slowly, over time, after hanging around the community, he was becoming a believer, in his own way. He offered his synopsis of the gospel. He said that the gospel sounded to him like this: I’m not okay. You’re not okay. And that’s okay.
I wanted to fine-tune that. But I believed he had grasped a basic truth. Maybe without knowing it, he was underscoring the message of the collect we read in church yesterday (above).
In a nutshell, the collect says we need help. The collect says that God knows our necessities, our ignorance, our weakness, our unworthiness, our blindness. An interesting if not entirely chipper assessment of the human condition. The collect also suggests that God, the fountain of all wisdom, is not surprised by any of this. God knows all this about us. And God hangs in there with us anyway.
We’ve been reading Paul’s letter to the Romans on Sundays. One of the key points the apostle makes in that letter is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No exceptions. But that’s not the whole story, because Paul describes in soaring language the marvel and mystery that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing, not even our deficits. We call that grace. It’s amazing.
Here’s one way to know what love is. It’s when someone in your life knows the bad or dumb things you’ve done, knows your quirks and deficits, and loves you still. Parents on a good day show that kind of love. Spouses can do that. It doesn’t happen enough in church, where contrary to the gospel, we often act like we expect people to have it all together. We are often less than gentle with other people’s failings, even if we coddle our own.
Our faith tells us about the wideness of God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. To the extent that we’re able to grasp that, to believe that, to trust that, we have heard the gospel. We are saved from the ways in which our world makes everything conditional, the persistent ways that our world tells us we don’t measure up, tells us we’re just not good enough.
When I began my course of study at Union Seminary, we had a week of orientation. I’d been out of school for a while and I was excited about a return to serious academic work. Heady stuff. One of the speakers at orientation was James Forbes, seminary professor who went on to be Senior Pastor at Riverside Church. He said he had just one bit of advice for us students. Memorize Psalm 139. He said it would change our lives. I thought: I didn’t come to this high-falutin’place to memorize bible verses. I did that in Sunday School.
But I took him up on it. Years later, I can still recite a good amount of the chapter. Have a look at that psalm this week and think about why he recommended it. Think about how it might be transformative. The premise of the psalm, thousands of years old, says that God knows us better than ourselves. (Just a few of the verses are printed above) God knows all the ways we fall short. With all that knowledge, God still is with us and for us. On some holy level, in some divine economy, it’s all okay.
I believe that good news a fair amount of the time. Sometimes I find it hard to believe and I don’t act as if it is true. But to the extent I can embrace that good news, it provides a way to live in the world, a break from all the ways that I regard love as conditional. It means that my necessities, my weakness, ignorance, unworthiness do not define or limit me. I hope I can receive the grace to live into that truth, and to regard others with a bit of the grace that God extends to me.